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Published: Thursday, 7/1/2010

Scars remain from tragedy at Lonz Winery

BY SARAH MERVOSH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MIDDLE BASS ISLAND, Ohio - Ten years ago Thursday, Shelly Tessean was playing cards on the terrace of the Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island when suddenly, everything began shaking.

Within seconds, a giant cloud of debris surrounded her as the concrete terrace collapsed, taking about 100 people, pop machines, and picnic tables with it.

Mrs. Tessean, 37, a nurse who was at the winery with her husband and friends, ran down the nearest steps to the cellar 20 feet below where the mass had fallen.

When the doors opened to the cellar, she said, the scene was absolute chaos - bodies and concrete everywhere with a cloud of dust still rising.

"Your nurseness tells you to go in, but your sensibility tells you to get the heck out," she said. Mrs. Tessean still feels the side effects of witnessing the accident.

Once when her pager vibrated at work, she collapsed to her knees, reminded of how the terrace shook before it fell. And she still feels uncomfortable going to the second story of a mall because it seems unsteady.

"To this day, if I'm anywhere and something starts shaking," Mrs. Tessean said, "it's just a sensation of instability."

Since the terrace collapsed on July 1, 2000 - killing one and injuring 75 - broken bones have healed, lawsuits were settled, and one family mourned the loss of their son and then did their best to move on. But for those affected by the accident, the Fourth of July weekend will always be slightly tainted.

For Barbara Reighard of West Toledo, this weekend will always be the weekend she went from being a mother of three, to a mother of two. Mark Reighard, who was 29 when he died, was the sole fatality in the winery accident.

But Mrs. Reighard doesn't need this weekend to remind her that she lost her son. "I think the thought or the scar is there every minute, every day," Mrs. Reighard said. "You laugh in a different way and you live in a different way. It's not the same as when you had all your children."

Her son worked in Columbus as a computer consultant, but he grew up in Toledo. His mother said he came into his own in the years before he died, developing into a respected, responsible, and caring man.

"He was a wonderful person. He had a sense of humor and intelligence along with that," Mrs. Reighard said. "He just knew the right things to say or laugh at."

His death was doubly difficult for Mrs. Reighard, who had lost her husband about a year before her son's death. The two are buried next to each other and she visits their graves twice a week.

Although Mrs. Reighard and her family suffered greatly after her son's death, in the past 10 years they learned to move on.

"It's life's plan. You have no choice. You go on," she said.

Mrs. Reighard said she wishes the winery would have focused more on safety and less on business.

The Reighard family settled a lawsuit in November, 2001, for a "very substantial" amount of money, their attorney Leon Plevin said.

It was one of several claims that developed into lawsuits after the incident. An additional 82 claims were settled privately.

The Lonz Winery, which used to be a popular tourist location, has not been used since its terrace collapsed and is closed for safety reasons.

However, the building may have a future, said Heidi Evans, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The state bought property on Middle Bass Island, including Lonz Winery, in 2001 and is turning the area into a state park, Ms. Evans said.

Fifteen statements of interest were submitted this year for the Lonz Winery property. Natural resources department officials hope to have a firm under contract and start plans for the building by the end of the year.

After witnessing the terrace collapse and using her medical skills to help victims, Mrs. Tessean said her perception of the Fourth of July weekend on Lake Erie has changed.

She spent her childhood summers visiting Lonz Winery and the nearby Put-in-Bay. It was a tradition she carried into her adult years. But now, her memory of the area is a mass of people covered in blood, with bones sticking out of their skin, and Mark Reighard's body lying near where she was assisting the injured.

"Every time I turned around, there he was," she recalled.

Keith Kahler, an EMS manager for Put-in-Bay, remembers the day as chaotic and bloody.

"They were all bloody. You didn't know who were victims and who was helping people," Mr. Kahler, 51, said.

Because of a lack of medical supplies, the crew had to be "very creative" and began putting victims on doors to transport them.

Mr. Kahler said the incident still stands out clearly in his mind and he recently gave a lecture on it.

"It's probably the biggest call I've been on in 30 years," he said.

After all the victims had received medical attention, Mrs. Tessean and her friends went back to Put-in-Bay, where they ate an entire dinner in silence while the rest of the island celebrated the holiday. "Everybody's over there having a good time, living it up. We just felt like zombies over there walking around," she said.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Reighard has stayed busy through the years, working part time and volunteering. But her son's death changed her, altering her life in small, ever-present ways.

Like now, when she hears that a young person died, she relives her own heartbreak and sympathizes with the family.

"When you lose a child," she said. "Oh, wow. I don't wish this on anyone. It's a pain that cannot be explained unless you go through it."

Contact Sarah Mervosh at:

smervosh@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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